To many, the idea of 3D printing is still elusive and futuristic. Because few public places have the machines, they are not as easily available to someone as ink printers. This technology has been around since 1981, when a small, 2 inch house was created in just under five hours. After 36 years, hundreds of unique printing companies exist, making printers that create bigger, bolder, and more useful 3D objects.
Despite this expansion, 3D printing has found no real place in the world of manufacturing. While cool and fun, the objects created by these printers are mechanically weak, with limited options for materials. The worst drawback is that printers take an immense amount of time to make anything. It seems like the only thing these tools are good for is making souvenirs and the occasional prototype, so what’s the point?
Carbon3D, a startup led by University of North Carolina chemistry professor Joseph DeSimone, is flipping the world of 3D printing upside down. He has co-invented a technology known as Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) that completely abandons traditional printing. This new process can make more complex objects with a wider array of materials, which is good news for the production industry. The most amazing feature, however, is that it can do this up to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printers – a major game changer.
CLIP’s ingenuity only becomes clear when one considers its contrast to the history of traditional 3D printing. 3D printing is also known as Additive Manufacturing (AM). The earliest AM methods involved a process developed in 1984 by Chuck Hull called stereolithography, in which photopolymers cured with ultraviolet light lasers are layered repeatedly until an object is created. Current machines use the more popular method of Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). Software process an STL (Stereolithography File Format) file, which contains a 3 dimensional model, and send it to the machine. The inside of the machine functions like a computer-controlled hot glue gun, in which a heated nozzle extrudes layers of molten material in zig zags.
Although this traditional process works, it is extensive, time-consuming, and problematic. For instance, these machines print from the bottom up; trying to print objects with overhanging parts or gaps in the underside is difficult and can lead to messy outcomes. This process has been done in the same sort of fashion for over three decades, so its issues have never been fully addressed. ‘Advanced’ printers are only given such a label because they are capable of printing faster purely from more efficient mechanical designs. This results in a scientific roadblock for this field, as no actual innovation is being done to advance it to its true potential.
The problem is that this field of manufacturing is viewed as a mechanical field. As a chemist, DeSimone used a unique perspective to create a new approach. CLIP eliminates the mechanical process of repetitively layering material by instead growing a design out of a pool of liquid resin. The traditional platform seen in 3D printing is still present in the CLIP technology, but with a slight twist – that is, twisted 180 degrees so that it is upside down and above the pool of liquid material. When a print begins, the platform is lowered into the pool and slowly pulls the object out of the reservoir, as if it had been there all along. As DeSimone remarked during the Ted Talk in which he first revealed CLIP, this process is reminiscent of the scene in Terminator 2 where the killer robot grows itself out of a puddle of melted metal.
The technology still uses the stereolithography technique of the past, but in an innovative way. A Carbon3D machine uses light and oxygen to solidify the liquid material in the pool, but the flow of these variables is controlled by a thin window underneath the pool that is both transparent to light and permeable to oxygen. This creates what Carbon3D calls a “dead zone” between the window and the developing object that allows the design to grow without stopping. As the platform lifts continuously, the object solidifies into one uniform mold.
The result is a technology that can create objects with an astounding amount of efficiency. Depending on the object, a Carbon3D machine could produce something 25 to 100 times faster than a traditional machine. Achieving this high speed already sets this technology apart from its competitors. In addition, objects made using CLIP feel like injection-molded materials, meaning that they are smooth on the outside and solid on the inside. This again trumps current technologies that print with inconsistent strengths and textures. With traditional printing, the direction of the design matters, and trying to print something upside down can be disastrous. With CLIP, designs can be grown with almost any orientation without forsaking structural integrity.
CLIP changes the face of the 3D printing world. These fast-growing machines make it possible for innovative manufacturing to become a reality. Since parts are grown, Carbon3D can make complex designs at the microscopic scale. This breakthrough will allow new technologies to be created as unique circuit boards can be designed to personalize devices and tools. We will able to see a future in which a surgeon can design a customized tool needed to save someone’s life and have it ready within minutes. Carbon3D has laid the foundation for a new surge of innovation. Only time will tell how the world will take advantage of it.
Antonio Medina is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Featured image courtesy of the Carbon3D company’s website, www.carbon3d.com)